Friday, October 24, 2014

Not Another Post About Conflict!

The question of conflict comes up in nearly every couples or family counseling session in some form or another. It is mostly the reason people seek counseling in the first place. In our premarried class we talk about how to do conflict well, and how to prevent it from turning ugly. In our current class (our 33rd) we added a new PowerPoint slide entitled “How we measure conflict.” This is our quick assessment that we use in sessions to determine progress in a relationship.

There are three criteria that we use: Frequency, Intensity and Duration.

FREQUENCY – How often do you get into conflict? Is it daily, weekly or even less frequently? I am not talking about mild disagreements like what, when or where to eat. I am talking about the kind where it becomes emotional, eliciting feelings of anger, distress or deeper frustration. Are you able to let the little things go so that the rough spots are the exception, not the rule? Are you able to really let them go and not just stuff them until they eventually erupt?

INTENSITY – How angry or upset or forceful do you get? In a conflict do you really lean in hard or wag your finger at the perceived offender? Or do you emotionally melt down into crying or sobbing? Are you able to stay in control of yourself or do you feel like you will burst if you don’t get it all out or if you are not fully understood? Do you increase in intensity as the time goes on? Do you become rageful or hysterical? Self regulation requires staying away from distressful self talk. I have heard experts use the terms “awfulizing” or “catastrophizing for this kind of inner conversation.

DURATION – How long do the conflicts last? Are you able to say what you need to say in a succinct manner or do you go on and on for multiple minutes or even longer? Do you corner people and “make them” listen until you are through or exhausted? I have heard stories of conflict that lasted multi-hours, followed by days or even weeks of withdrawal. That level of immaturity is bound to impact a relationship in a very negative way.

We can usually tell the health of a relationship by assessing these factors. When they are on the decrease the relationship is usually getting better (unless both people have emotionally checked out and the end is near.) Interestingly, some couples will rate these measurements in their relationship differently. The difference in perception is usually the result of their earlier family or relationship history. Volatile or avoidant family of origin systems will often cause a skewed perspective. Both aggressive and passive behavior is immature and destructive.

One of our pastors quoted a recent study about marriages that went the distance: less than 5% of the content of their conversations were complaints (negativity). However, when the complaints rose to 10% or more, the relationship was at a high risk of failure. I think that statistic holds well for Nan & me. 

So how do you see your relationships? Are these key factors on the decrease in most or all of them?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Xtreme Feelings

One of the things I like working as a counselor is the ongoing learning that I experience. Not just from books and seminars, but from the process itself, discovering things together with clients as the sessions unfold. Anyone who knows me knows how much I like and rely on my whiteboard. The above whiteboard illustration came during one of these sessions.

We were talking about how extreme feelings produce extreme reactions and usually extremely bad results.  

And often those feelings produce an intense sense of urgency – as if something must be done RIGHT NOW. But urgency causes us to overreact instead of proceeding in a more appropriate and godly manner.

When extreme feelings tempt us we must immediately back away. We are in a relational danger zone and only distance will protect us from potential destruction. In the above mentioned session, I suggested the client should look for alternate explanations when the intense feelings hit rather than accept the first and most feared one. A light came on for the client. He said that in the field of systems analysis and critical thinking, it is called looking for a rival hypothesis. And the solution, he said, is to search for confirming or disconfirming evidence before making a decision or taking action. Wow.

What it requires is slowing down the response and knowing that truth will come in time.

When our emotions get hijacked and the feeling of urgency presses on us, we must assess whether there really is an imminent threat or danger that must be dealt with quickly. In most relationships the answer to that question is almost always “No!” Usually it is a miscommunication or a misinterpretation. I never have bad intentions toward Nan and she never has bad intentions towards me.

So what do Nan and I do when we hit one of those intense rough spots? We get away and calm ourselves down first. We never bring heated anger to the table – never. Then, stripped of blame, we spend time clarifying the issue and if needed, we both own and apologize for our part of the conflict. Clarifying means being willing to listen more than talk. If both people will do that the crisis will pass quickly. Most of our conflicts these days last five minutes or so once we come to the table.

I know some of you are saying “But that seems so hard in the moment.”

Yes, it really is difficult. Much of what is worthwhile in life comes with a price. There is no way to sugar coat it. You must act differently than you feel, because of the benefit that will follow. The rewards are relational harmony and spiritual righteousness. 

Ephesians 4:31-32 Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Is Refusing Sex in Marriage OK?

The young married couple sat across from us, obviously frustrated. The issue: he was refusing her sex – not all the time, but frequently enough that it was turning into a real problem.

“I feel like she is just using me sometimes, you know, to satisfy herself.”

Of course this scenario could have easily been reversed. Women are often the one expressing this kind of complaint. So what do we think?

Yes, sometimes in marriage we are using each other – and it’s quite OK.

The Bible has something to say about this: 
1 Corinthians 7:3-5 (NLT) The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
This may not seem like a very popular passage with everyone, but it is very practical and very mutual. I wonder how many couples will refuse each other for the purpose of deeper prayer? Oh, and the scripture says it has to be a joint decision.

There are places where we draw the line – like when sex is an addiction. Statistics show that a couple (over the span of a marriage) will have sex an average of from one to three times a week. Younger couples generally more, older couples generally less. And of course the frequency drops during seasons of pregnancy.

One of the reasons a spouse might refuse sex (particularly wives) is because of a lack of physical resources. She has been tending to the needs of their children and is just plain worn out. Or she may experience discomfort because of her monthly menstrual cycle. Or maybe a husband or wife has a very physical or time-consuming job and is exhausted at the end of a day. What can be done?

Give your partner a heads-up so that they can minimize their work load. I know one wife who tells her husband she has enough energy to either prepare a home cooked meal or have sex, but not both. He will gladly bring home pizza. Or how about a husband who offers to forego overtime hours when his wife is feeling romantic?

It is quite true that sometimes we just plain “don’t feel like it”, when our partner does. This is the perfect occasion for a “quickie.” It’s a loving concession we make because we care about our partner. Many experts consider refusing sex a form of emotional abuse when used as a control mechanism in a relationship.

There are times when parents may have to schedule an appointment for sex – a bit unromantic perhaps, but it reduces the anxiety for the spouse who wonders when it will happen again. We call this “planned spontaneity”.

Some couples have extenuating circumstances – physical or medical issues perhaps. We would encourage those couples to find alternate ways of satisfying each other sexually. The key here is finding agreement. But the bonding that occurs is just too precious to ignore forever.

Finally, if you must refuse sex, give a very kind turn-down, and if possible give a rain-check with a potential time in the future.

How about you? Is this an area you will have to give some deep thought to?